The UN plastic treaty doesn’t let lobbyists drown out researchers

The problem is not all stars in alignment: science brings out the elephant in the room of the negotiations and the implementation of a global plastics treaty

In reality, however, not all stars are in alignment. Just as in global climate negotiations, countries and companies with vested interests are putting the treaty’s success at risk. The many nations striving for an ambitious treaty are being held hostage by those few that are locked politically and economically in a harmful plastics past. The key tounlocking a brighter plastics future can be found in reining in vested interests.

Around 25% of the material used in the manufacturing of plastic end up being a pollutant to the environment. Of this, 6 million tonnes end up in rivers and along coastlines annually. These materials degrade into micro- and nanosized particles that have been found almost everywhere, from Arctic ice to Antarctic snow — and even in the stomachs of unborn babies. The greenhouse-gas emissions associated with plastics amount to almost 1.8 billion tonnes of carbon dioxide — 3% of the global total in 2019. Many chemicals used in the making and treatment of plastic are still in the environment and are proving toxic.

Serious steps need to be taken to tackle waste and alternatives must be found. If there are no suitable alternatives, nations must invest in the infrastructure necessary to recycle the materials and ensure that manufacturers take responsibility for the full life cycle of their products. They have to make a transition that protects the jobs of people who depend on the industry.

Strong competing-interest rules should be applied to all scientific matters. Fossil-fuel, chemical, and plastics industries should be reported by participants in the negotiation and implementation of the treaty. Making such declarations public would enable scrutiny and accountability. For instance, the United Nations could support a way to verify declarations.

Many scientists were unable to get accreditation for the first three negotiation rounds. This is because publicly funded universities had been included in the ‘government’ category, which meant that their researchers would have had to be accredited as representing their governments, which they don’t. In January, UNEP said that people from their governments can apply to public universities. It is not clear whether this change has made it easier for researchers to get accreditation.

Successfully navigating treaty talks requires finding common ground despite nations’ competing priorities. One of the strengths of the present system of organizing talks is that all those involved agree that discussions will be guided by independent scientific knowledge. This is a foundational principle. Science has brought nations together to reach an agreement on a treaty.

Policymakers should also insulate scientific bodies from corporate interference. Business views should be about developing solutions and not debate the science. And the two discussion streams should be kept separate. The Framework Convention on Tobacco Control excludes experts with ties to the tobacco industry. Such a rule does not prevent dialogues between science and stakeholders.

I acknowledge that the private sector is not monolithic and comprises actors who want to contribute to a better plastics future, by supporting the Business Coalition for a Global Plastics Treaty, for instance. But the private sector must build trust by ceasing activities that intend to manufacture doubt. Resources would be better utilized on sustainable plastic materials and products.

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